Love Wins: Part 7, Your Gospel Is Too Small

In Chapter 5 of Love Wins--"Dying to Live"--Rob Bell wrestles with the proper scope of the gospel.

Bell is trying to address the classic Protestant error of reducing salvation to a private transaction between the individual and God. Such a reduction results in a couple of well-known theological distortions. A couple of those distortions:

1. The private individualistic focus neglects the epic sweep of the great drama of salvation recounted in the bible. For example, the individual focus effectively negates the entire Old Testament. All that is just so much preamble. More, the individualized focus effectively negates the life and teachings of Jesus. The Incarnation has so salvific implications (other than getting Jesus here to die). Neither does the teachings of Jesus such as the Sermon on the Mount. Even worse, it's contended that the Sermon on the Mount isn't even for the church! Given that the Sermon occurred before Jesus's heartbeat stopped, the Sermon on the Mount (along with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Matthew 25, and the Golden Rule) was all a part of the "Old Law" which Christians can safely ignore.

What a relief!

But it get worse. The individualistic focus also ignores the salvific effects of the resurrection. The only thing that matters is the death of Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice.

2. The individualistic focus neglects the cosmic scope of the gospel. It ignores the fact that God has an interest in rescuing Creation as Creation from its bondage to futility.

Romans 8.19-23
For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.
Is Jesus's blood necessary to save, say, trees?

Salvation isn't just about saving souls from hell. It's about the restoration of all things, Creation included:
Colossians 1.15-20
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
3. Finally, although Bell doesn't focus on this, the private individualistic focus ignores the political implications of the gospel. In the privatized view salvation is an issue of judgment between you and God. Thus, once God forgives you, that's that. You're saved. Salvation in this case has little to say about your allegiance to the Principalities and Powers and bondage to death. Salvation has been effectively privatized, pietized (I just made that word up) and depoliticized. Meaning? Meaning that you get to go to heaven and nothing else much changes or matters.

Bell, as do many of us, has a grander view of salvation. A grander view of the biblical story. A grander view of the birth, teachings, and resurrection of Jesus. A grander view of the scope of salvation. A grander view of the "abundant life", in this life as well as the next.

Two quotes from Chapter 5 of Love Wins:
When people say that Jesus came to die on the cross so that we can have a relationship with God, yes, that is true. But that explanation as the first explanation puts us at the center. For the first Christians, the story was, first and foremost, bigger, grander. More massive. When Jesus is presented only as the answer that saves individuals from their sin and death, we run the risk of shrinking the Gospel down to something just for humans, when God has inaugurated a movement in Jesus's resurrection to renew, restore, and reconcile everything "on earth or in heaven" (Col. 1), just as God originally intended it. The powers of death and destruction have been defeated on the most epic scale imaginable. Individuals are then invited to see their story in the context of a far larger story, one that includes all of creation.
How many people, if you were to ask them why they've left church, would give an answer something along the lines of, "It's just so...small"?

Of course.
A gospel that leaves out its cosmic scope will always feel small.
A gospel that has as its chief message avoiding hell or not sinning will never be the full story.
A gospel that repeatedly, narrowly affirms and bolsters the "in-ness" of one group at the expense of the "out-ness" of another group will not be true to the story that includes "all things and people in heaven and on earth."

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15 thoughts on “Love Wins: Part 7, Your Gospel Is Too Small”

  1. THESE and other reasons are why I consistently reply that, if Rob Bell is off the mark, then no more so than most of the people criticizing him. I love how he come back in the quotes above to pointing out that God is at the center and not ourselves.

  2. I like the words of the Nicene Creed where it says, "FOR US and for our salvation He came down from heaven......"

  3. One of the reasons I like NT Wright is that he has this same expansive idea about salvation.....

  4. It is gratify to know that Bell appreciates the wider dimensions of salvation.  That Jesus is not just a personal savior but the savior of the cosmos.

    What has passed for the gospel for far too long has been a timid, measured announcement of “salvation” that sounds more like God’s salvage operation of a creation ravaged by death and sin. Saving (salvaging) the elect, the few (a salvation of the fittest) from a fallen damaged creation and all other creatures are consigned to the cosmic dust bin.

    Even many universalists have typically not dared to venture beyond a conception of a new creation that is inhabited by just God, all humans and the angels. The Good News is for all creatures and reaches back to the first moment of creation forward to the boundless future of the ever-expanding universe.

    Salvation is simply a means to an end. Just like judgment is an auxiliary to salvation they are both penultimate and serve a broader ultimate goal: YHWH becoming all in all, the homecoming of YHWH into His creation, the merger of YHWH space (heaven) with the space of creation creating a new reality unprecedented and boundless in which all things come alive in ways we cannot yet begin to comprehend. All things are made new. A new Genesis, a new chain of causality is established that is free of death, all the death “derivatives” and sin.  Justice, universal equitableness, permeates the very fabric of reality and all are born anew directly from YHWH and the Lambkin—the resurrection.  

  5. "What has passed for the gospel for far too long has been a timid, measured announcement of “salvation” that sounds more like God’s salvage operation of a creation ravaged by death and sin. Saving (salvaging) the elect, the few (a salvation of the fittest) from a fallen damaged creation and all other creatures are consigned to the cosmic dust bin. "

    That has to be the best simile I've heard in a long time. 

  6. We will be known for our love for one another. Not our love for doctrine
    or the right belief but our love for one another. What is the greatest

    1 John 2:2- He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.

    1 Timothy 4:10- This is why we work hard and continue to struggle, for
    our hope is in the living God, who is the Savior of all people and
    particularly of all believers.

  7. Beautifully stated, Cleanslate. And I agree with your assessment of the scope of the gospel. But that's what I find so vexing as it relates to theodicy. It's hard not to ask, "Well, then what's the hold up?" 

  8. God's holiness is His essence. All His attributes are Holy. Holy not only referrs to moral purity but to everything that sets God apart from His creation and creatures. He's "Other." So while God is love it's a Holy love. This is no mere human love. There are ways we are to be like God and ways we are not. We cannot be like God in every way. He alone is God and He therefore has rights and prerogatives that we don't. Moreover, God has a Holy hatred of the reprobate. God says: Vengeance is Mine I will repay. Rather if your enemy is hungry feed him. God tells us to love our enemies. We as Christians are to leave room for God's holy wrath. For He indeed does have a Holy hatred.

    Lev. 20:23

    And you shall not walk in the statutes of the nation which I am casting out before you; for they commit all these things, and therefore I abhor them.

    Deut. 25:16

    For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are an abomination to the Lord your God.

    Psalms 5:5

    The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;

    you hate all evildoers.

    You destroy those who speak lies;

    the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.

    Psalms 11:5-6

    The Lord tests the righteous,

    but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.

    Let him rain coals on the wicked;

    fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.

    Proverbs 6:16-19

    There are six things that the Lord hates,

    seven that are an abomination to him:

    haughty eyes, a lying tongue,

    and hands that shed innocent blood,

    a heart that devises wicked plans,

    feet that make haste to run to evil,

    a false witness who breathes out lies,

    and one who sows discord among brothers.

    Proverbs 11:20

    Those of crooked heart are an abomination to the Lord,

    but those of blameless ways are his delight.

    Proverbs 16:5

    Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord;

    be assured, he will not go unpunished

    Hos. 9:15

    Every evil of theirs is in Gilgal;

    there I began to hate them.

    Because of the wickedness of their deeds

    I will drive them out of my house.

    I will love them no more;

    all their princes are rebels.

  9. I'd agree. I'm all for leaving room for God's holy wrath. As you say, there's nothing in human hatred that gives us any clue about what these passages mean. God's hatred is wholly Other.

    But that puts us in a bit of a pickle. Pushed to its logical conclusion the "wholly Other" move you make empties the passages you list of any content. Effectively making them a meaningless jumble of words.

    So how to proceed, how to get a handle on what God's wholly Other wrath looks like? I start here:

    "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father."

    Thus, whatever God's wholly Other wrath looks like its going to looks like Jesus dying for sinners on the cross saying "Father forgive them."

    Now there's a holy hatred that looks nothing like how humans understand hatred.

  10. Well, we can see that Holy hatred as we watch God pour out His wrath out on the sins of His people that were laid on Christ at the cross. When you think about it that's alot of sin! No wonder Christ's sufferings were so severe. I thank Christ for removing God's wrath from my vision so that I can now behold the glory of God in the face of Christ. We also see what God's hatred is going to be like in Revelation. How long that wrath is going to last - I'm not sure. 

  11. I understand where you are coming from. But I do disagree about the severity of Christ's sufferings having anything to do with God's wrath. The severity of Christ's sufferings are a sign of the length God would go to "turn the other cheek"--loving us to the point of death with no violence in Christ's heart. We are saved because of God's non-retaliation.

  12. Well, we are to follow in Christ's footsteps as He entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly. Christ didn't retaliate because He trusted His Heavenly Father. Yes, what man did was evil. But God meant it for good to save the lives of people. One act - two intentions. Compatable in all things.

  13. Hey Richard,

    I got this published in the Reasons To Believe newsletter in the Austin Texas chapter. I'm really excited.

    In arguing about the problem of evil and suffering I use to try to place God in a human category and say He must behave a certain way. What I failed to take into consideration is the holiness of God. Holiness when applied to God not only refers to moral purity and perfection but to everything that sets God apart from His creation and His creatures. Holiness is God's essence. It's who He is. God is set apart from His creation and transcendent. He's distinct. We are to imitate God in His holiness in certain ways but there are also ways we are not to imitate God. We cannot be like God in every way. He alone is God and He therefore has rights and prerogatives that we don't have. Just to name a few ways I'm not like God: God is infinite in wisdom, God is all-powerful, God is sovereign, God is self-sufficient, God is all-knowing. When I try to be like God in every way it leads to pride and arrogance. He is the Creator and I am the creature.The Bible tells us that God is love. It doesn't say He is ONLY love. And while God is love it's a holy love. For the Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not only this but the Bible also speaks of a holy hatred that God has. So, it's my contention that the problem of evil and suffering doesn't even get started. For God's love isn't merely a human love but a holy love. This isn't the same omnibenevolence that we try to ascribe to God. For God has a holy hatred as well. Nonetheless, He is completely holy and deserves our worship.

  14. In reply to your post immediately below this:

    “God has a holy hatred.”

    Completely true.  His hatred is absolute too, and will result in him destroying, without pity, all the enemies of his creation -


    - and in so doing, bringing abundance and life to all he has made.

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